Why does Parenting Cause So Much Anxiety?

Last year, Jennifer Senior, contributing editor at New York Magazine, spoke at a TED talk on the topic of “Why is parenthood filled with so much anxiety?”

You can watch her TED Talk here (it’s worth it):

Why does parenting cause so much anxiety?

Jennifer describes a time when Dr. Spock (not to be confused with Mr. Spock) was the sole authority on child-rearing. If they didn’t follow Dr. Spock, most parents just did what their parents did and muddled their way through somehow. (And while they made some mistakes here and there, we all turned out okay, for the most part.)

Fast forward to 2015, and walk into any Barnes & Noble to find entire sections on parenting – literally hundreds of books ranging from raising a child to be science-minded, gluten-free, eco-friendly, multi-lingual, disease-free, financially-savvy, and a whole host of other hyphenated words. While the authors of these books may be well-intentioned, to Jennifer, staring at the floor-to-ceiling rows of books doesn’t equal help; it equals anxiety. Perhaps you can relate.

If you’re raising children in the 21st century, you would most likely characterize your life as “too busy” and “stressed out.” You love your children, you want the best for them, you want to do everything right – better than your parents did -and above all else, you want them to be happy. That’s quite a burden for parents (particularly moms) to put on ourselves!

People have been raising children for thousands and thousands of years – has it always been this way? Have parents always been so stressed? Historically, no. Until the 1930s, children were expected to contribute to the family income on the farm, in the factories, and in mines. Skip to the 1950s, June Cleaver era. Children became “financially worthless, but emotionally priceless.” Seems like a lovely time, no? Don’t be fooled – although most mothers stayed home to raise the children, cook homemade dinners, and vacuum the wallpaper in their heels and pearls, they actually interacted less with their kids than the busy working moms of today!

You probably know a few of those “supermoms”. (Perhaps you are one.) They wake up at the crack of dawn, hit the gym, make the kids’ lunches, shower and get ready for work, get the kids ready and off to school, head to work, pick the kids up from school, take them to soccer practice (lugging gear and snacks – and quite possibly a few extra kids), followed by a home-cooked family dinner, homework, bathtime, and bedtime stories. (I’m exhausted just typing that.)

What’s the problem?

Why does parenting cause so much anxiety?21st century parents experience more stress and less marital satisfaction, among other things, than non-parents. But, as Jennifer Senior argues, children aren’t the problem.

Parenting is.

Author and mom of five, Jen Hatmaker, wrote this great article on Today.com in which she said:

When I think about upping the joy in parenting and diminishing the stress, I propose that much of our anxiety stems from this notion that our kids’ childhood must be Utterly Magical; a beautifully documented fairytale in which they reside as center of the universe, their success is manufactured (or guaranteed), and we over-attend to every detail of their lives until we send them off to college after writing their entrance essays.

It becomes this fake pressure, which results in its trusty sidekick: guilt. And nothing steals joy away from parenting more than believing you are doing a terrible job at it. And nothing confirms you are doing a terrible job at it then thinking you should run out and backfill eight antique trunks as a memorial to your third-grader’s life.

The standard we’ve placed on ourselves as parents – to make our kids happy – is causing us so much stress and panic that we aren’t enjoying parenting. To boot, research has shown that some parents would rather spend time with a complete stranger than their own children.

We might all do well to take Jennifer Senior’s advice. Rather than focusing on making happy kids, focus on making productive and moral kids – and hope that happiness will come to them by virtue of the good they do, their accomplishments, and the love they feel from their parents. Rather than trying to write a new script for parenting, Jennifer says, “follow the oldest scripts in the book: decency, work ethic, love – and let happiness and self-esteem take care of themselves.” The kids will be happier, and the parents will too.

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